Mahathir keen on new national car company

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's goal is to manufacture another national car - in collaboration with other partners in Asia, including Thailand, Japan, China and South Korea.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's goal is to manufacture another national car - in collaboration with other partners in Asia, including Thailand, Japan, China and South Korea.PHOTO: AFP

Proton, with stake owned by China, no longer fits the label

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad aims to have a new national car company, given that Chinese automaker Geely has acquired a stake in Proton, he said yesterday.

"The national car must be owned by Malaysians," he told the 24th Future of Asia Conference in Tokyo organised by Nikkei Inc. "The company has been sold to Chinese company, it is no longer a national car."

His goal, he said, was to manufacture another national car - in collaboration with other partners in Asia, including Thailand, Japan, China and South Korea.

"I believe we have the capacity to produce good quality cars which are sellable throughout the world. We want access to the world market," he told the forum. The Straits Times is a media partner of the event.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on the sidelines of the forum, Tun Dr Mahathir said the new car company could carve a niche in making vehicles equipped with advanced technologies. "We hope, of course, we would be able to produce a new car in compliance with the Euro-5 or Euro-6 emission standards so that we can have access to the world market," he said.

Proton was founded in 1983 during an industrialisation push in Dr Mahathir's first term, and it commanded the lion's share of the domestic market a decade later.

NATIONAL NO MORE

The national car must be owned by Malaysians. The company has been sold to Chinese company, it is no longer a national car.

MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER MAHATHIR MOHAMAD, referring to Proton.

In a deal brokered last year under the Najib Razak administration, Geely bought 49.9 per cent of the struggling carmaker, marking the Chinese automaker's first push into South-east Asia.

Dr Mahathir, who first served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, is on his first overseas trip since he was re-elected as Prime Minister last month.

He meets his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe today - the last day of the three-day working visit.

Yesterday, he told the Nikkei forum that while he acknowledges the perks of free trade, its current principles would cripple smaller economies like Malaysia.

This, he said, was why his government is calling for a review of the terms of the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), stressing that Malaysia "is not completely against the TPP".

"It is like playing golf, you need a handicap. The weakest players will get the largest handicaps so that the competition will be much fairer," he said. "It is the same with trade."

The United States, as a major economy, is unjustified in turning towards protectionism, he said. But smaller countries would require some form of protection.

"We must recognise there are infant industries that are just beginning to grow. We need to have some privileges, we are not in the position to compete with the great trading nations of the world," he said.

In 1982, he launched the Look East Policy to urge Malaysians to adopt East Asian work ethics, management and other policies for commercial and industrial expansion. Yesterday, he said he hopes the policy can still apply for Malaysians to "adopt Japan's culture of hard work, diligence and strong feeling of shame in poor quality".

He has criticised former prime minister Najib for leaning heavily on China, and has said he will review existing Chinese projects to put a lid on national debt. Still, he told a news conference yesterday that Malaysia hopes to continue its "friendly" relationship with China in forging a good trading partnership.

"Malaysia had a leader that was in love with big projects and big loans," he said, and borrowing money was "his way of being friends with China".

While Malaysia reviews projects, Kuala Lumpur will tap into China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, he said.

"We are a small country and whether we object to it or not, China will go ahead with the Belt and Road plan. But what we have to make sure is that it is not exclusive (to China) and that other people can use in the same manner."

Dr Mahathir told the forum he was willing to continue beyond two years that he previously stated, if that is what Malaysians wanted.

"I'm willing to serve, and if that is the wish of the people, for as long as they want me - but of course I don't know how long I will last. In two years, I will be 95 years old. I am already the oldest PM in the world.

"Serving the country is all I care about and if that is what people want me to do, I will accede to their wishes," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2018, with the headline 'Mahathir keen on new national car company'. Print Edition | Subscribe